[guest post] Let’s Not Call People “Illiterate”

Frequent guest poster CaitieCat is back with a short piece about classism and how we call people out.

One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about recently in feminist circles is the concept of ‘splash damage’ – the idea that sometimes taking aim at one thing in a particular way ends up causing harm to other groups. Things like describing ‘people with uteri’ as exclusively women, white feminism assuming the centrality of the white upper/middle-class experience, using ‘crazy’ as a synonym for ‘person with repugnant ideas’.

In that vein, I’d like to introduce the idea that when we jibe at people as ‘illiterate’, or assert/imply that someone’s inability to spell according to the rules of ‘standard English’ means that their ideas aren’t worth listening to, or that they are inherently less worthy ideas for being expressed in a way that isn’t standard for upper/middle-class people…we are being classist.

Particularly in a US context, where educational options are very strongly influenced by class (and race, in an intertwined manner), riding the xenophobes for misspelling ‘illegals’ as ‘illeagles’, or “Muslim” as “muslin”, what we’re saying is, “You should have been smart enough to get yourself born to the right kind of parents, who’d give you access to the best education, who were educated themselves enough to teach you ‘proper’ English, and who were rich enough to make sure you never had to work after school instead of studying!”

I’m speaking from experience here. Yeah, I talk just like a toff now, but I’m from a seriously poor, working-class background.  Like, ‘familially homeless’ poor.

I’m the first person in my extended family to ever attend university (I finished a baccalaureate in linguistics, and had to drop a master’s in order to transition in the still notoriously transphobic  early 90s). Only the second to finish secondary education. Neither parent got an O level (grade 11-ish, for the North Americans).I worked after school all the way through high school, and took two jobs to get through university.

So I grew up speaking a working-class dialect, and it was very much the product of hard work and dedication, and love of language itself, that allowed me to learn to talk so good.I can code-switch now, speaking in my natural working-class accents (English and Canadian), or my learned ‘standard English’, which is solely Canadian (well, mostly).

I don’t think I need to give you examples, do I? Or much further argument?

Let’s focus our opprobrium on their ideas, and leave the classist shit to the 1%. When we are classist, we’re only helping the oligarchs, by diminishing people who should be our allies. We wonder why they vote against their class interests, and then we act as though we despise their class every time we do this. We should be better than this.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

Some Evidence Against Shame and Stigma as Weight Loss Motivators

[Content note: weight/size stigma and discrimination]

It is considered self-evident by plenty of people that shaming fat people for being fat gets them to stop being fat. That’s why a common reaction to body/fat positivity campaigns is that they’re going to make people think it’s “okay” to be fat. As opposed to…not okay.

However, even if we begin with the presumption that it’s a net good for fat people to stop being fat, research evidence is rapidly piling up that suggests that shaming and stigmatizing them won’t work. In fact, it may have exactly the opposite effect.

In a paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors provide this overview of research on this topic:

Media attention to obesity has increased dramatically (Saguy & Almeling, 2008), as has discrimination against overweight and obese individuals (Andreyeva, Puhl, & Brownell, 2008). Overweight individuals are often portrayed in the media as lazy, weak willed, and self-indulgent (Puhl & Heuer, 2009), and as a drain on the nation’s resources (Begley, 2012). Because stigma can be a potent source of social control (Phelan, Link, & Dovidio, 2008), some authors have suggested that stigmatizing obesity may encourage people to lose weight (Bayer, 2008, Callahan, 2013 and Heinberg et al., 2001), and policies that utilize potentially stigmatizing elements (e.g., BMI report cards) are becoming more prevalent (Vogel, 2011). Little evidence exists, however, that stigmatizing obesity promotes weight loss. In fact, among overweight individuals, experiencing weight-stigmatization is associated with greater reports of maladaptive eating behaviors (e.g., Haines et al., 2006 and Puhl and Brownell, 2006), increased motivation to avoid exercise (Vartanian & Novak, 2008; Vartanian & Shaprow, 2010), and poorer weight loss outcomes among adults in a weight-loss program (Wott & Carels, 2010; but see Latner, Wilson, Jackson, & Stunkard, 2009). Furthermore, experimentally activating weight stereotypes decreased overweight women’s self-efficacy for exercise and dietary control (Seacat & Mickelson, 2009). Collectively, these findings suggest that stigmatizing obesity has negative behavioral consequences that may increase, rather than decrease the weight of overweight individuals.

The paper also reviews research suggesting that the reason this happens is because of something called identity threat. When an individual has an identity that they know is stigmatized and something happens that triggers their awareness of that (such as a joke about the identity or a person who invokes negative stereotypes about it), the individual may experience negative effects. Some of these are physical, such as increased physiological stress response. Some are psychological, such as feelings of shame or anxiety. The person may try to act in ways that “compensate” for the flaws others may perceive in them or avoid situations in which people might think poorly of them (for an overweight person, this may include eating with people or going to the gym).

In theory, all this stress, anxiety, and effort depletes cognitive resources available for other activities that require what is known as executive function–mental tasks such as regulating emotions, setting goals, using short-term memory, and so on. Research has shown that when people of various stigmatized categories are reminded of those stigmas and stereotypes, their cognitive performance on a variety of tasks worsens.

The researchers in this study hypothesized that feeling identity threat would decrease participants’ ability to subsequently regulate their food intake. Specifically, they tested whether or not exposure to news articles about weight stigma would actually increase the amount of calories participants consumed. They believed that the participants who would be most affected would be those who believe themselves to be overweight, regardless of their actual weight, because they would be the ones who would feel identity threat when reminded that weight stigma exists.

The participants were 93 female college students (45% White, 24% Latina, 18% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% African American, 10% other races). Prior to the study, they had filled out a survey that included a few questions about weight (the rest were just there to hide the purpose of the survey). When they arrived at the study, they were told that the purpose was “to examine correspondence among verbal, nonverbal, and physiological signals.”

They were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the test condition, they read an article called “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job,” which was compiled from actual news stories and described the discrimination that overweight people may face in the workplace. In the control condition, the participants read a nearly-identical article that was about smoking rather than weight.

Afterward, they were led to another room and asked to wait for the experimenter to return. The rooms had bowls of snacks that had been weighed prior to the study, and the participants had the opportunity to eat some of the snacks while they waited for 10 minutes. They were then asked to return to the previous room to complete a final questionnaire.

One of the measures on the questionnaire was called “self-efficacy for dietary control.” Self-efficacy refers to one’s sense of having the ability to do something and control one’s outcomes in that domain. This particular measure assessed the extent to which participants felt they could control their eating, avoid unhealthy foods, and so on. Various studies suggest that having a sense of self-efficacy is more important in terms of actual behavior than other factors, such as believing that the behavior is healthy or important. (For instance, here’s an example involving elderly people and exercise.)

The results were pronounced. In the weight stigma condition, women who perceived themselves to be overweight ate significantly more calories than those who did not perceive themselves as overweight. In the control condition, there was no significant difference:

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

Furthermore, women who perceived themselves as overweight had significantly lower self-efficacy for dietary control in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition, while women who did not perceive themselves as overweight actually had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

This means that, within the context of this experiment, women who perceive themselves as overweight increase their food intake in response to hearing about stigma against overweight people and feel less capable of controlling their food intake. The very people being targeted by this information in ways many people think are helpful are actually being harmed by it, not only in the obvious emotional sense but even in their ability to control what they eat.

One really notable finding in this study is that actual weight did not correlate with either calories consumed or self-efficacy in either condition. Perceived weight was the relevant variable. I’ve often heard people argue against the body positivity movement because but if fat people don’t think they’re fat then how will they ever stop being fat?! Ironically, the women who did not perceive themselves as overweight had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

One weakness of this study is that it is unclear whether or not the participants who increased their food intake did so consciously–or deliberately. If it was unconscious and not deliberate, then this finding may fit with previous findings about identity threat. If not, it’s still an important finding, but it’s probably easier to get people to change mental processes that are conscious and deliberate as opposed to those that are subconscious and unintentional. It’s also possible (though probably unlikely) that the women in the weight stigma condition purposefully ate more as a sort of symbolic protest. Oh, you’re going to fire me because of what I do with my own body? Well, fuck you, I’ll eat as much as I want.

Another limitation is that the type of stigmatization invoked in this experiment isn’t quite what overweight people might actually experience in their day-to-day lives. While articles like the one used in the study are common, the idea behind stigmatizing people so that they lose weight is usually more direct: for instance, telling them they need to lose weight, penalizing them for being overweight, and so on. Telling a study participant that they’re fat and ugly and need to lose weight would probably never pass an IRB review, but it would be a more naturalistic scenario, unfortunately.

While the sample used in this study is more racially diverse than many other samples in psychology studies, that really isn’t saying much. The researchers did not discuss any racial disparities in the data, but that would be an interesting direction for future studies. Also, all of the participants were young women, so it’s unclear how well this generalizes to older women and men of all ages.

With research like this, it’s important to remember that the findings should be interpreted much in the way that the statement “consent is sexy” should be interpreted. Namely, you should get consent because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s “sexy.” Likewise, you should refrain from shaming and stigmatizing fat people because it’s the right thing to do, not because shaming and stigmatizing them doesn’t work anyway. Activists rightly criticize research like this for suggesting the implication that we should stop shaming fat people because it doesn’t get them to lose weight, rather than because it’s a shitty thing to do. That said, I don’t think that’s an implication that the researchers mean to give. We should conduct, support, and read research about how human motivation works (and how everything else works) because it’s important to know. This is just one piece of that puzzle.

It is my hope, though, that studies like this will work where “don’t be an asshole” won’t. The most important thing to me is for people to stop stigmatizing and discriminating against fat people, whatever the reason they stop doing it, because it’s harmful and needs to stop. Then maybe we can make these people understand why they were wrong to do it.

However, this research also opens up a lot of tricky questions. If shaming people who are overweight did actually help them lose weight, would more people think that this is an okay thing to do? If shaming people who do things that most of us would consider Definitely Bad, like rape or theft or even saying racist things, worked, would that be okay to do? Many would probably say yes to the latter but no to the former.

What is clear, though, is that human motivation (and reasoning in general) often works in ways that seem counterintuitive. You might think that people would respond to the stimulus of “being overweight can cost you your job” with “well I’d better stop being overweight, then!” But that’s not necessarily the case.

~~~

Major, B., Hunger, J.M., Bunyan, D.P., Miller, C.T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51: 74-80.

How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the suburban Midwest is weird. I was often the only person my classmates knew who had been born in another country, who didn’t have American citizenship, who spoke a language other than English or Spanish fluently, who wasn’t a Christian. I think people often unintentionally treated me as the Official Ambassador of Israel/Russia/Communism/Judaism to the City of Beavercreek, Ohio.

I was lucky in that I was very rarely bullied or harassed outright (and when I was, it usually wasn’t directed at my various ethnic/religious/national statuses, so I couldn’t really tell if that was motivating the extra attention or not).

However, my status as an immigrant played a huge role in my childhood and adolescence–probably bigger than any other part of my identity. It was what people noticed the most and latched onto, and also what people conveniently ignored when they wanted to hold me accountable for failing to follow their norms.

Because of that, how we treat immigrants has been something I’ve thought about literally since I was old enough to think about things like that, which is why I wanted to write about how we can be better at it.

Note: As immigrants go I am extremely privileged. I’m white/European, able-bodied, and middle-class, and my parents are both highly educated (which played a huge part in the fact that we were able to immigrate in the first place). I also immigrated at a pretty young age–old enough to understand what was happening and miss my home country like hell, but young enough to adjust sort of well and learn the language quickly. I am also an immigrant to the United States.

This means that my experience as an immigrant is very different from many other people’s experiences as immigrants, and the content of this post reflects that. I’m not going to try and write about immigrant experiences that are not my own, but you should definitely share yours in the comments if they address issues that I’m unable to speak about (well, and even if they don’t).

Second note: Yeah, this is mostly a post of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” There are two possible reasons for this that you can pick from: 1) I’m a nasty and negative person, or 2) including lots of “do’s” on this list is kind of silly, because the “do’s” of how to treat someone who’s an immigrant are basically the same as the do’s of how to treat anyone else: be kind and honest, assume good intentions, respect boundaries.

So here we go.

1. Don’t make fun of their pronunciation or be an asshole about how you correct it.

For most of my childhood, I heard the following sort of thing on a regular basis: “HAHA did you just say SAL-mon? Don’t you know it’s pronounced SAAAAAAAA-mon? DUH.”

There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly. The third is to realize that you do, in fact, have the option of just letting it slide and not playing English Police. They’ll learn eventually; you don’t need to be their personal savior.

This sort of thing got much better once I was no longer a child (suggestion: talk about this with your kids!) but you’d be surprised how many adults likewise don’t understand that this sort of thing is extremely rude.

2. Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

There’s an xkcd that makes this point really well:
Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.

I love this because it shows how silly and small-minded it is to make fun of someone for not knowing something you think they should know. It’s especially true with pop culture stuff.

Even if someone immigrates to the U.S. as a child, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be very aware of (or necessarily interested in) American pop culture. I wasn’t until late adolescence, partially because I always sort of did my own thing and partially because my parents didn’t expose me to it at home. They showed me the Russian cartoons they loved as children and played the Russian music they’d listened to their whole lives. The food we ate was mostly Russian and Israeli; the movies we watched were older foreign films of all sorts.

So when I express ignorance about some piece of American culture and my friends are all like “AHAHAHAHAHA you don’t know who KURT COBAIN IS/what the PRINCESS DIARIES ARE were you born under a rock or what?!”, that is unhelpful. No, I wasn’t born under a rock. Just in another country.

This, unlike the pronunciation thing, hasn’t really gotten much better as I’ve gotten older. Maybe people assume that because I did spend most of my childhood here, I somehow developed a taste for this stuff, I don’t know. Or they assume that I’m somehow “required” to learn about famous American TV shows/movies/musicians by virtue of living here. But I haven’t and I’m not.

3. Don’t act all amazed at how good their English is.

Yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes this is totally fine and sometimes people won’t be offended. If you know someone pretty well and have actually witnessed their English improving, go ahead and compliment them on it. But otherwise, acting like it’s so amazing that the person has indeed managed to learn English is kind of condescending, especially since they might’ve been in the country for quite some time.

4. Don’t assume they’re here by choice or that they want to Become A Real American Now or that they need to assimilate.

Although Americans tend to act like their country is The Best In The World and that everyone else agrees, this isn’t necessarily the case. My family, for instance, came here mostly out of economic necessity–the Israeli economy was basically in the toilet in the mid-90s–and also because, well, Israel is a little bit dangerous. But we miss it all the time, and for me, it will always be home in some sense.

New immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate rapidly to American culture and shrug off their ethnic identity. Historically this was often done to them against their will–for instance, Ellis Island officials would change foreign-sounding names to more American-sounding ones without permission. However, this is still going on to a distressing degree, such as the continuing battles over whether or not Latino/Latina children should be allowed to learn about their own culture and history in schools.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that American culture > other cultures. There is no reason to expect or pressure immigrants to Become Americans. Sometimes you move to a new place and that place becomes home for you. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

5. This is probably obvious, but bears repeating: don’t literally ask them if they fit the stereotypes you have assigned to their country/culture of origin.

If I got a dime every time someone said “Oh you’re Russian? You must be an alcoholic then ahahaha hahaha vodka babushka nuclear weapons Putin Stalin.” That’s all. (Here are some things Russians are tired of you saying to them.)

6. Don’t ask questions like you already know the answer.

This relates closely to the previous point, but it doesn’t necessarily involve stereotypes. People’s questions often contain a latent assumption that they already know the answer (i.e. “So your mom must make borsht all the time, right?”), which forces me to contradict them (i.e. “Well, actually, we eat a mix of Russian, Israeli, and Jewish foods so borsht is really only a small part…”)

Or they’ll be like “Oh so your parents must give you vodka all the time, right?” and I have to be like, “Well, actually, in Russian culture vodka is sort of considered a drink for men, and when my family has dinner parties the vodka is typically only poured for men unless a woman specifically asks for it.” (Fun fact: I have never actually drank vodka with my parents even though it flows freely at all of our social events.)

Questions phrased like you already know the answer makes it seem like you’re just awkwardly trying to show off your supposed knowledge of other cultures. Which just makes me feel awkward because I feel somehow expected to validate you and express surprise and gratitude that you know so much about my culture. (Which you don’t, necessarily.)

If people asked things like “What kind of food do you eat at home?”, that would be much better. That gives me space to actually answer the question and give them the information they’re curious about without feeling like I’m being asked to make someone feel good for knowing what borsht is.

And for goodness’ sake, quit asking about the damn vodka already.

Preliminary comment moderation note: Posts like these tend to bring out the Freeze Peach Patrol en masse. Unfortunately for the Freeze Peach Patrol, however, I have no interest in entertaining their flimsy arguments for the hundredth time. So, if you want to participate in the discussion, please contribute something more substantial than “YEAH WELL THE FIRST AMENDMENT SAYS YOU CAN BE AN ASSHOLE TO IMMIGRANTS.” Yes, you have the constitutional right to ignore all of my advice and be a huge asshole. We’ve established that now. Okay? Okay.

A Handy List of Everything Wrong with Creating a Database of People with Mental Illnesses

It’s not like anyone expected the NRA to say anything intelligent during its long-awaited press conference on Friday, so I’m not exactly disappointed by what they said. I am, however, completely appalled at the NRA’s ignorance of mental illness and insensitivity to those affected by it.

Along with a few other laughable suggestions, like putting armed security guards in elementary schools, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Executive Vice President, said this:

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark.

A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”

Now, I’m not sure to what extent LaPierre actually believes that this is a realistic and ethical goal as opposed to a throwaway remark intended to deflect responsibility from his organization and the products it defends. It’s also unclear how much the NRA’s leadership has discussed and promoted this idea.

However, I think it’s still worth using this example to show how ignorant these people are about mental illness, because I’m quite certain that they are not alone.

So, here’s everything I can think of that’s wrong with the idea of creating a national database of people with mental illnesses.

1. It’s redundant.

As Kate explains on Ashley Miller’s blog, mental health professionals are already required to break confidentiality and report when patients pose a clear threat to themselves or others. Rather than putting this in some sort of “database,” they report it to the people who know best how to use this information–the police. I’m not sure if LaPierre is suggesting that we create a public database of people with mental illnesses so that armed vigilantes can take matters into their own hands or what, but I think most reasonable people agree that dealing with people who have expressed the intent to harm others is best left to the police.

Furthermore, as Sarah Kliff writes in the Washington Post, 38 states already require or allow the use of mental health records in background checks for people trying to purchase guns, and the Gun Control Act of 1969 bans the sale of guns to people who have been committed to a mental institution in the past. However, that act is difficult to enforce because state reporting laws vary so much, and unfortunately for LaPierre, it is unconstitutional for the federal government to require states to report mental health records for a national database.

2. It violates existing laws.

As Kate also mentions, HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires that people’s medical records be kept private. (So strict are medical confidentiality rules that when I saw a psychiatrist as a 19-year-old dependent on my parents’ medical insurance, the psychiatrist had to ask for my consent before she explained to my mom why she thought I needed antidepressants.) Creating a national database of people with mental illnesses would mean repealing or amending this law. Can the NRA summon up enough support in Congress for that?

If LaPierre intends to use this database to restrict the ability of people with mental illnesses to access to resources they need, such as jobs and schools, that would also violate the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which bans discrimination on the bases of mental and physical disability. And, regardless, as mentioned in #1, creating a national database would probably not be constitutional because the federal government would have to force states to report mental health data.

3. It’s probably impossible to determine which diagnoses should be included.

Repealing or amending HIPAA would also mean deciding which diagnoses would suddenly not be subject to confidentiality. People like LaPierre seem to think that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are the most “dangerous,” but what about substance addiction, which is highly correlated with violence? Would every alcoholic have to be registered? What about autism, which many people falsely associate with violence? And, if yes, then what about Asperger’s Syndrome, now considered a “mild” version of autism that’s on the low end of the spectrum? What about depression, which can sometimes involve psychosis?

Or, since LaPierre simply called it a “national database of the mentally ill,” should we include everybody with mild depression, social anxiety, a phobia of elevators, an eating disorder? Should we include people whose mental symptoms are caused entirely by another, purely medical illness? Should we include people who develop depression as a result of, say, cancer?

4. The list of ethical ways to use this database is very short.

Seriously, what would you do with it? Deny these people access to employment, education, and housing? Then you’d have to repeal the ADA. Surveil them? That’s a violation of civil liberties (not that our government’s great about that). Bar them from purchasing guns? As mentioned above, that’s already going on in the majority of states, and it’s one of the reasons “liberals” are trying to pass stricter gun regulations. But this is where the common argument against such regulations–that criminals will find a way to get guns anyway–can be turned right back on those who tend to spew it. It’s worth noting that Adam Lanza did not purchase his guns; he got them from his mother, who bought them legally and is not reported to have had any mental illness.

5. Most people with mental illnesses do not get treatment.

And you can’t register them in a database unless they do, obviously. One study suggests that over 60 percent of people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, do not receive consistent treatment. This means that a majority of the people who should be in the database wouldn’t be in it, anyway.

Although the association between mental illness and violence is tiny, people with untreated mental illnesses are more likely to be violent than those whose illnesses are being treated properly (although the link between mental illness and violence is still very small). This means that the people who would be on this database are the ones who are least likely to cause anyone any harm.

In any case, the percentage of people who don’t get the treatment they need would probably go up, because:

6. It would discourage people from seeking treatment.

The stigma of mental illness and treatment already keeps many people from reaching out for help. If you know that going to see a therapist or psychiatrist could put your name on a national registry of people to be feared, stigmatized, and discriminated against, why would you do it?

Even if most of what I’ve said above about misuses of this database turns out to be a huge strawman–which I don’t know, because LaPierre hasn’t specified how he wants this database to be used and it’s important to consider the potentially dangerous ramifications–people will still worry. Even if the only purpose of the database is to prevent people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns, people will still be worried about that information falling into the wrong hands.

This, of course, is the final nail in the coffin of LaPierre’s idea. Even if nothing else that I’ve said about it were true, this point would be reason enough not to do it. Anything that prevents people from getting treatment is, by default, the wrong solution.

I already know many people who refuse to seek treatment for a mental illness because they are worried about being discriminated against if the wrong person finds out. Although the ADA supposedly protects them, it is difficult if not impossible to prove that discrimination has occurred. Those fears could grow much more urgent if simply going to a doctor and receiving a diagnosis puts your name and medical information into a national database accessible to god-knows-who.

This is what tells me that not only is LaPierre scapegoating people with mental illnesses to divert opprobrium from his own organization, but he also completely misses the point and fails to understand the first thing about mental health and treatment.

He gives away his views on people with mental illnesses when he says this: “The truth is, that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can every possibly comprehend them.”

We are “genuine monsters” to him.

He’s wrong, of course. There are plenty of “sane” people who comprehend those with mental illnesses–researchers, therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, friends and family of those affected, and people who have recovered from those illnesses. That LaPierre personally fails to understand them says more about his own lack of both empathy and research in the field than about the supposed need to stick them all in a national database for the perusal of bigots.

It is also worth noting that in this emotionally charged statement, LaPierre fails to distinguish between people who commit acts of violence because of an illness they cannot control without proper treatment–which LaPierre wants to make it even harder for them to get–and people who commit acts of violence because they have no respect for human life and are seeking to make a political point, get personal revenge, and so on. Although violence and death, especially of children, is tragic regardless of the cause, that doesn’t mean that all violence is caused by the same type of person.

If I could make a suggestion to LaPierre, I would tell him to talk less, read and listen more. There’s reasonable disagreement to be had about how to prevent further mass shootings, but his suggestion was not reasonable. It was ignorant, offensive, and probably dishonest.

Please Sign My Petition to Remove the “No Respect For Suicidal Teens” Facebook Page

[Content note: suicide]
Yup, I’m using my blog to promote something. But it’s a very important something.

In my blog post earlier today I mentioned this atrocious Facebook page, which cruelly mocks suicidal teenagers by calling them “selfish” and “ignorant” and inciting them to kill themselves. I had reported it to Facebook, and I just received this email in response:

“Thanks for your recent report of a potential violation on Facebook. After reviewing your report, we were not able to confirm that the specific page you reported violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.”

Now, clearly, this is some bullshit, because Facebook’s terms include the following:

“6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
7. You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”

This Facebook page is violating these terms by bullying, intimidating, and harassing teens who are suffering from mental illness and are considering taking their own lives. Furthermore, it certainly qualifies as hate speech against people with mental illnesses. The page also attempts to incite suicidal teens to kill themselves with posts that say things like “go drink some bleach,” and, unsurprisingly, it also contains racist material.

So I started a petition to get Facebook to take the page down. Please sign it here and share it.

The thought of a struggling teen stumbling across this page makes my stomach churn. I don’t care if it’s a “joke” or not; it should be taken down.

This is a small thing, but change begins by refusing to allow hatred and ignorance like this in our society, including on the websites we use.

Update: Thanks so much to everyone who signed the petition! The page is now gone. However, its creator left some comments over on Greg Laden’s blog and has made it clear that they intend to bring it back. Pretty unfortunate how vested in their hatred some people are.

The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.

HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

Affirmative Action Rant

A few days ago, the Daily Northwestern published a column called “Affirmative Action Dangerously Shortsighted.” It was predictably awful and spawned 269 (mostly dissenting) comments as of now.

Some excerpts:

I oppose the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the workplace and essentially any other setting. I am pleased that Fisher had the courage to revive this discussion, given the almost certainty that our hypersensitive, obsessively-politically-correctsociety would be quick to brand any white person willing to challenge this biased system of admissions as racist. In its effort to remedy the lingering effects of a more racially segregated past where one skin color was preferred over another, affirmative action has become its own insidious form of discrimination where the preference is not for one skin color over another, but for skin color over merit.  And merit be damned as the country continues to self-medicate with affirmative action to relieve its guilt over a history of which most living today were not even a part.

[...]The presumed racism of upper-middle-class white people is drastically misaligned. In fact, today, in terms of direct statements of discrimination and disdain, one is more likely to hear disapproving sneers about “rich white people” than anything derogatory about minorities. There certainly is no shortage of people who identify Mitt Romney and “his people” as disgusting, horrible people who deserve no respect but rather a plethora of unflattering associations.

[...]UT rejected Abigail Fisher based on merit, but she says merit that was racialized – that is, merit categorized by racially motivated academic skews in a way that rejected Abigail in favor of lesser-qualified minority applicants with lower standards to meet.

I won’t try to pick apart all the baseless claims in this article; my friend Mauricio has done that quite well.

Here’s the thing. Nobody likes affirmative action. I would call it a necessary evil except I prefer to save the word “evil” for things like Todd Akin.

I don’t like affirmative action. But you know what I like even less?

That’s right, racism. (Total buzzkill, that.)

Racism has two definitions–the popular one and the academic one. The popular definition is that racism is disliking another person based on their race. By this definition, white people who dislike black people are racists, and black people who dislike white people are racists.

This is the only definition of racism that Zink seems to know.

The academic definition of racism is much more complex. It’s a system of societal inequality based on race, in which non-white people are not afforded the same opportunities for education, employment, housing, justice, or respect as are white people. By this definition, white people are racist if they support this system explicitly or tacitly. People of color, however, cannot be racist under this definition, because there is no structural oppression of white people in this society.

This–not the first definition–is what affirmative action is designed to address.

Although this system of racial inequality intersects with classism, or class-based societal inequality, people of color of any class still face certain disadvantages compared to their white neighbors. For instance, they are more likely to be pulled over (and beaten) by the police for “looking suspicious.” They are more likely to be followed around by store employees who are concerned that they’ll steal something. If they choose to keep their hair in an afro or wear traditional dress from their culture, they may be looked down upon in the workplace. Even their “ethnic-sounding” names can make it more difficult for them to get jobs. If that’s not discrimination, I really don’t know what is.

But where racism intersects with classism, the disadvantages are even more apparent. People of color are much more likely than whites to be poor, which means that they are much less likely to have access to good schools and jobs, be able to afford college, and live in safe neighborhoods. Poverty is thought to contribute to the disproportionately high incarceration rate for African Americans (along, of course, with racial profiling), because it means they’re much less likely to be able to afford legal counsel.

All of these factors–and so many more–make it more difficult for students of color to be accepted into universities, especially top-tier universities. All that stuff I did as a teenager that helped me get into college–extracurriculars, SAT prep classes, gifted summer camps, AP classes, a research internship in Israel–are things that a poor student of color is very unlikely to be able to access and afford.

That’s why we need affirmative action.

People like Zink keep complaining that whenever anyone speaks out against affirmative action, they get labeled either ignorant or racist. Nope. You could, for instance, make the argument that affirmative action should be based solely on class, not on race. I suppose you could even make an intelligent case against affirmative action in its entirety, although I haven’t personally seen one. But that’s not what this Daily column did.

If you make a coherent argument based on actual evidence, people may disagree with you, but they won’t call you ignorant or racist.

However. If you argue that affirmative action is unnecessary because there’s no racism anymore, then you’re ignorant, because racism is demonstrably still an issue.

This broken fire hydrant is the best visual representation of Mitt Romney’s privilege.

And if you argue that affirmative action is wrong because “I had this one friend who was like super qualified but didn’t get the job she applied for and some black chick got it instead,” then you’re racist, because you’re assuming that there’s no possible way “some black chick” could be more qualified than your one friend.

And don’t even get me started on Zink’s ludicrous assertion that people who make “disapproving sneers” about Mitt Romney are somehow being reverse racists. We don’t criticize Romney because he’s rich and white. We criticize him because he spews his privilege around like a broken fire hydrant.

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

Urban Outfitters' Possibly-Accidental Holocaust Reference

Aside from perhaps American Apparel, there might not be any clothing retailer that people love to hate more than Urban Outfitters.

This time, UO has angered the Jewish community by selling a t-shirt that seems made to resemble the patches that Jews were forced to wear on their clothes during the Holocaust:

Credit: Urban Outfitters

The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to CEO of Urban Outfitters explaining the uncanny similarity to Holocaust symbolism. Although UO itself hasn’t issued any sort of statement, the company that makes the shirt, Wood Wood, has. They replaced this shirt with a plain yellow one and explained that they had never intended to make a Holocaust reference:

As some of you are aware, several news sites have been writing about our “‘Kellog’ T-shirt, which features an image of a six-pointed star, allegedly similar to the yellow badge Jews were ordered to wear by the German nazis. First of all the graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is in no way a reference to judaism, nazism or the holocaust.

While I’m obviously glad that they apologized to anyone who may have been offended and changed the shirt, I’m a bit confused as to how this happened to begin with.

Because here’s the thing–Wood Wood is a Danish company. That’s right, from Denmark. This is the same country that made an extraordinary effort to rescue its Jewish citizens from the Holocaust. Ordinary Danish citizens helped 8,000 Jews escape to Sweden after the Nazis invaded, and over 99% of Danish Jews ended up surviving.

This is particularly poignant if you think about how differently things went in many other European countries. Only 10% of Polish Jews, 12% of German Jews, and 25% of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust.

Anyway, the point of this brief foray in Holocaust history is to show that the people of Denmark were once willing to put their own lives in danger to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Today, meanwhile, a Danish company is apparently unaware of the symbolism in its design and mocks the Holocaust with a $100 cotton t-shirt.

I do understand that it’s completely possible–perhaps even likely–that this was completely unintentional. After all, not everyone sees a six-pointed star and immediately thinks “Star of David,” not everybody sees a yellow color and a patch on the chest and thinks “Jude.”

And that possibility brings up some difficult questions. How far should people go to avoid accidentally using Holocaust imagery and offending a ton of Jews? Are we being “too sensitive?” (And I should point out that Jews by no means agree on this. Granted, Jews never agree on anything.)

I can’t really answer those questions. However, I will say that based on UO’s history of culturally insensitive merchandise, I’m not necessarily as willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as I might be with another retailer. Come on, “Navajo Hipster Panty”? Who signed off on that?

Furthermore, it should be noted that the decision to take the six-pointed star off of the shirt was made not by UO, but by Wood Wood. UO seems intent not to learn from any of its mistakes and to continue producing merchandise that offends people, waiting until the inevitable uproar begins to remove said merchandise from the shelves. When will this stop? And, incidentally, when will UO also stop stealing indie artists’ designs, promoting anorexia, and denying collective bargaining rights to employees?

As I mentioned, this particular story does have a happy ending. The shirt is now being sold sans Holocaust-style patch, so it’s just a plain yellow shirt. Yours for only $100 at Urban Outfitters.